FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Peterson Zah, a monumental leader of the Navajo Nation who guided the tribe through a politically tumultuous time and worked tirelessly to right injustices against Native Americans, has died.
Zah died late Tuesday at a hospital in Fort Defiance, Arizona, after a long illness, his family and tribe announced. It was 85.
Zah was the first president elected on the Navajo Nation – the largest tribal reservation in the US – in 1990 after the government was restructured into three branches to prevent the concentration of power in the office of the president. At the time, the tribe was in the midst of a deadly rebellion instigated by Zah’s political rival, former President Peter MacDonald, a year earlier.
Zah vowed to rebuild the tribe and support family and education, speaking to people in ways that were mutually respectful, said longtime friend Eric Eberhardt. Zah was so comfortable wearing clothes to represent the Navajo people in Washington, D.C., as he drove his old truck around the reservation and sat on the ground, listening to people who were struggling, he said.
“People trusted him, they knew he was honest,” Eberhardt said Tuesday.
Zah will be laid to rest on Saturday morning in a private service. A community reception will follow just outside of Window Rock, Arizona. His family expressed their thanks for the love and support they have received.
“It is heartwarming to hear from so many people sharing stories about Peterson, which provide comfort to the family,” they said in a statement late Wednesday.
Aspiring politicians inside and outside the Navajo Nation sought Zah’s advice and approval. He went with Hillary Clinton to the Navajo Nation parade a month before Bill Clinton was elected president. Zah later campaigned for Hillary Clinton in her bid for the presidency.
He recorded countless campaign ads over the years in the Navajo language that aired on radio, mostly with Democrats. But he also made friends with Republicans, including the late U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whom he endorsed in the 2000 presidential election as someone who could work across the aisle.
Zah was born in December 1937 on remote Low Mountain, a section of the reservation embroiled in a decades-long land dispute with the neighboring Hopi tribe that resulted in the relocation of thousands of Navajos and hundreds of Hopis. He attended boarding school, graduated from the Phoenix Indian School and dismissed the idea that he wasn’t cut out for college, Eberhardt said.
Zah attended community college and then Arizona State University on a basketball scholarship, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in education. He continued to teach carpentry on the reservation and other vocational skills. He later co-founded a federally funded legal advocacy organization serving the Navajo, Hopi and Apache that still exists today.
Although he never held a major elected position, Zah took the position of tribal chairman in 1982, campaigning in a white, battered 1950s International pickup that he built himself, drove for decades, and which became his symbol. his low-key style, Eberhard said. .
Under Zah’s leadership, the tribe established a now multibillion-dollar Permanent Fund in 1985 after winning a court battle with Kerr McGee that found the tribe had the power to tax companies that extract minerals from the 27,000-square-mile reservation. All coal, pipeline, oil and gas leases were renegotiated, which increased payments to the tribe. A portion of this money is added annually to the Permanent Fund.
Former Hopi president Ivan Sidney, whose tenure overlapped with Zach’s as president, said the two mended the acrimonious relationship between the neighboring tribes over the land dispute. They agreed to meet in person, without lawyers, to find ways to help their people. Even after their terms ended, they attended tribal inaugurations and other events together.
Zha was like, ‘let’s go turn some heads,'” Sidney recalled Wednesday after visiting with Zha’s family. “We went together, sat together and introduced ourselves together.”
Zah is sometimes referred to as the Native American Robert Kennedy because of his charisma, ideas and ability to get things done, including lobbying federal officials to ensure Native Americans could use peyote as a religious sacrament, he said last year his friend Charles Wilkinson.
Zah also worked to ensure that Native Americans were reflected in federal environmental laws such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.
Zah told The Associated Press in January 2022 that respecting people’s differences was key to maintaining a sense of beauty in life and improving the world for future generations. He struggled to name the thing he was most proud of after receiving a lifetime achievement award from a Flagstaff-based environmental group.
“It’s hard for me to prioritize in that order,” he said. “It’s something I’ve loved doing all my life. Humans have passion, we are born with it, plus a purpose in life.”
Zah said he couldn’t have done the job alone and credits team efforts that always included his wife, Rosalind. Throughout his life, he never claimed to be an extraordinary Navajo, just a Navajo with extraordinary experiences.
This resonated with students at Arizona State University, where Zah served as the school’s president’s Native American liaison for 15 years, boosting the number of Native students and the number of Native graduates. Zah also pushed for colleges and universities to accept Navajo students — regardless of whether they graduated from the reservation in Arizona, New Mexico or Utah — with in-state tuition.
“He’s thousands upon thousands of Native students, not just Navajo, who he encouraged to stay in school, to pursue advanced degrees, and he was available for advice when they hit a rough patch,” said Eberhardt, who worked for Zah while he was president. . “It completely changed the way Arizona State University works with Native students.”
Current Navajo President Buu Nygren said he first interacted with Zah as a student at ASU, impressed by Zah’s speech which he described as quiet and structured yet powerful and vibrant.
“Seeing him on the ASU campus brought a lot of inspiration to myself,” he said. “I probably wouldn’t have gone into construction management if he hadn’t been so influential at ASU.”
Zah remained active in Navajo politics after leaving ASU, advising other Navajo leaders on issues ranging from education, veterans and housing.
“He was a good and honest man, a man with a heart,” former Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. said late Tuesday. “And his heart was with his family, with the people, with the youth and, certainly, with our nation, our culture and our way of life.”